Five reasons to grapple with Godard’s radical Dziga Vertov Group films

The films Jean-Luc Godard made after abandoning the French New Wave comprise a guerrilla handbook of explosively radical filmmaking and politics. They’re finally available to watch, but should you dare? 

Craig Williams

Wind from the East (1970)

Wind from the East (1970)

“Fin de cinéma” reads the title card at the close of Jean-Luc Godard’s Week End (1967), marking the end of his celebrated French New Wave period. Following the civil unrest of May 1968 in France, the newly radicalised Godard, along with student Jean-Pierre Gorin, sought to “make political films politically”, forming filmmaking collective the Dziga Vertov Group (DVG), named after the great Russian documentarian.

Between 1968 and 1973, the group made a series of experimental, radical films, in front of which, according to the collective’s manifesto, “the population thinks, learns, struggles, criticises, and transforms itself”.

The films of the period have often been overlooked or misunderstood and, as with much of Godard’s work, it’s tricky to separate the myth from the reality. For a long time they’ve been difficult to see, but are now available more widely, including online on BFI Player. Here’s why they’re worth the effort.

1.  They’re not as impenetrable as you might think

With his fondness for Brechtian distancing techniques, thematic opacity and dense textual allusions, Godard’s work has never been the easiest to penetrate. The films of the DVG are no different in this respect, but their impenetrability has been exaggerated. They are lively and unpredictable, rich in artistic and intellectual audacity. Even after a decade of trailblazing, there’s a real sense of exhilaration in seeing Godard find new ways of working, including by leaving France and shooting in countries like Czechoslovakia in Pravda (1970) or the UK in British Sounds (1969).

British Sounds (1969)

British Sounds (1969)

2.  Many of the styles and ideas were already present in Godard’s nouvelle vague films

While the films of the period were a departure for Godard in many ways, a number of elements were already common in the director’s earlier work. From the militant politics of La Chinoise (1967) to the subversion of Hollywood genres in Bande à part (1964), the fourth-wall-breaking of Pierrot le fou (1965) to the radical essaying of 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her (1967), each has its counterpart in the Dziga Vertov Group films. Even Godard’s obsession with American cinema is evident, in particular in Tout va bien’s (1972) tribute to the staging conceit of Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man (1961).

3.  Godard and his collaborators tried to create a new working-class cinema

The DVG films are essential, ground-level documents of revolutionary movements in Europe post-May 1968, but their mode of exhibition is of equal significance. Godard and Gorin tried to reach the people the films were about, travelling the continent, screening them to unions, students and political organisations (Olivier Assayas’s 2012 film Something in the Air features an evocative fictional reimagining of these tours).

From the outset of his career, Godard was interested in the intersection of class and cinema exhibition, frequently berating what he saw as disengaged, bourgeois audiences. His work with the group represents his most powerful confrontation with this idea. Its legacy continues to reverberate throughout French cinema to this day, which still betrays a complicated relationship with ‘L’esprit de mai 68’.

Vladimir and Rosa (1971)

Vladimir and Rosa (1971)

4.  The great auteur embraced collaborative filmmaking

After spearheading the cult of the auteur with his Cahiers du Cinéma compatriots in the late 1950s, Godard ditched the idea of authorship in favour of a genuinely collaborative approach with the group, where the films were often credited to the group itself rather than any individual within it. This approach is epitomised in a pivotal scene in Wind from the East (1970) where the assembled group discuss their collective approach to the film at hand.

A degree of self-consciousness was always there in Godard’s work, but this was the period when he began to truly challenge and interrogate his own methods and outlook. In Ici et Ailleurs (1976), made with Anne-Marie Miéville (who would become his most important collaborator), he was already ruthlessly appraising his own work with the group.

Struggles in Italy (1971)

Struggles in Italy (1971)

5.  They’re finally available to watch

The lack of availability has been a key factor in the diminished reputation of Godard’s post-Week End work in the UK. Indeed, despite the enduring popularity of his nouvelle vague films, the distribution of much of the director’s subsequent work has been patchy at best. Even his latest film, the pioneering and rapturously received Goodbye to Language, went straight to DVD in the UK in 2014.

Encouragingly, the majority of the Dziga Vertov Group films are now available thanks to releases from boutique home entertainment labels, thoughtful repertory programming and streaming services such as BFI Player and MUBI, often accompanied by vital contextualising information in the form of booklet essays, programme notes and editorial material.

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